WASHINGTON – A top congressional panel is calling student debt a $1.5 trillion crisis – and on Tuesday morning, policy practitioners and comedian Hasan Minhaj called for action on the issue.
House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said the hearing might actually be the first committee hearing in the panel's history focused on student lending and its ramifications.
"We have a responsibility to make sure student loan borrowers are better protected," Waters said.
Minhaj, a writer, host and producer, recounted an episode from his Netflix show "Patriot Act" that focused on student debt. He noted that student debt had become a "paywall to the middle class."
"The day we shot our episode, we surveyed our studio audience – which is only about 200 people," he said. "That room alone had over 6 million dollars in student debt. Granted my audience is mostly unemployed poli-sci majors. But still, that's a lot."
"People aren't making more money and college is objectively more expensive," he said.
Seth Frotman, the executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center, a consumer advocacy group, noted that nine million borrowers were in default on their student loans, with three million Americans at least two payments behind on their debt.
"This Committee must protect those chasing the American Dream from those who seek only to prey on its pursuit," Frotman said.
Advocates also noted the racial disparities in borrowing between African-American and white students. Frotman described one study that found African-American students owed 45% more student debt than white students – a disparity caused in part because of the large wealth gap between African-American and Latino families, and white families.
The committee aimed to discuss several legislative proposals to address Americans' student loan debt burden, ranging from the discharge of private student loans if borrowers become permanently disabled, or the strengthening of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau's oversight powers.
Student debt in America: Student debt repayment is completely different for white and black Americans
Student debt has become a major 2020 campaign issue as Democratic presidential candidates have presented different ideas to address it.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has proposed to eliminate all student debt, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has proposed to forgive student loans for millions of borrowers, depending on their household gross income.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hasan Minhaj testifies on student debt in Capitol Hill hearing in DC